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From Friday, 24 January to Sunday, 26 January, I read Robert B. Parker's Appaloosa (NY: G.P. Putnam's Sons [published by the Penguin Group], 2005; ed.: 1st ed., hardcover; 276 pps.; ISBN: 978-0-399-15277-6); this is the first book in the Cole-Hitch quadrilogy. This was the first book that I started and finished in 2014, and the first book of fiction that I read in 2014.
cover to Robert B Parker's Appaloosa

Robert B. Parker's Appaloosa is the first book in the Cole-Hitch quadrilogy (it's followed by Resolution [2008], Brimstone [2009], and Blue-Eyed Devil [2010], which was published posthumously; a fifth book, Robert B. Parker's Bull River, published on 7 January 2014, was written by Robert Knott, who co-wrote the screenplay adaptation for the 2008 movie with actor / director Ed Harris); it's a western set in the early 1880s about a pair of itinerant lawmen-for-hire ("town tamers" is the term usually applied to them) named Virgil Cole (a borderline psychopath who adheres to written laws -- even if he writes them himself -- to rein in, more or less, his own murderous impulses as much as he does to restore some semblance of law and order to the towns whose sheriff or marshal he serves as) and Everett Hitch. In this installment, they are hired to defend a sleepy copper mining town in the New Mexico Territory named Appaloosa against the ravages of a rancher named Randall Bragg and his gunnies. Complications ensue with the arrival of a widow named Allie French, who secures employment as a piano-player in the saloon of the town's hotel, largely on the strength of her looks; she certainly doesn't obtain employment based on her piano-playing skill.

This is a cookie-cutter premise, but the interest lies in what Parker does with it. Parker's style here is spare and terse, almost laconic to a fault; people who dislike detailed descriptions of scenery, clothing, equipment, and characters' personal histories should rejoice, for they are wholly absent from Appaloosa. Parker's prose here puts one in mind of a bullion cube: everything is distilled down to its bare essence, such that one wishes for some water to thin it a bit in places. You may have to force yourself to slow down a bit so the whole thing doesn't fly by in a dreamlike blur; still, there is no grandiose bloviating about What it Means to be A Man, in the manner of Louis L'Amour, Zane Grey, or Owen Wister, which is a definite plus to my mind. That said, readers who are averse to too much "modernity" in their westerns may want to think twice before reading Appaloosa: though the prose and dialogue can in no way be described as florid (á la the dialogue in HBO's late, lamented Deadwood series), f-bombs (and c-bombs...) are lobbed, bodily functions and anatomical parts are described plainly, even bluntly, and women of easy virtue are not shielded with a variety of genteel euphemisms.

For the reader willing to surrender to Parker's rhythms, Appaloosa does offer better than pulp-fictional pleasures: Everett Hitch is an agreeable first person narrator who harbors few illusions about his own abilities or motives (he prefers work that will allow him the greatest scope for using his gun -- preferably a shotgun -- which is one reason why he resigned his commission in the U.S. Army) who recounts, in a brief flashback, how he met and was pulled into the orbit of Virgil Cole, an almost superhumanly gifted gunfighter who continually picks his way through books -- Clausewitz's On War is a particular favorite -- to improve himself; as a consequence, he is prone to uttering malapropisms as he attempts to use words he has recently learned (many of these pass unremarked by Hitch; it's left to the reader's discretion as to whether Hitch himself is aware of all of them or if, in the manner of one half of an old married couple, he simply elides over much of his partner's speech in the interest of continued accord). There is also some rather pungent and, ultimately, dispiriting symbolism regarding an Appaloosa stud, residing rather far afield from the breed's native range, and his harem of mares. And the climactic showdown in the final chapter is a jaw-dropping exercise sure to take its place in creative writing textbooks as an exemplar of how to write violence, right alongside Fitzgerald's scene of domestic violence in The Great Gatsby.

While I read Appaloosa five years after seeing the movie based on it in the theatre, the book is sufficiently different from the movie -- the points emphasized in the novel are different from those underlined in the film -- that it can be enjoyed on its own merits. The minor drawback of seeing the movie first is that the reader is apt to picture Ed Harris as Virgil Cole, Viggo Mortensen as Everett Hitch, Renée Zellweger as Allie French, and Jeremy Irons as Randall Bragg; this isn't entirely a bad thing, as the actors are mostly well-cast, although I could quibble with how Irons stacks up with the impression of Bragg given in the book, and one could wish for an actress a bit more alluring than Zellweger to play the femme fatale Allie French. (Although the biggest miscasting, to my mind, is of Lance Henriksen as one of Bragg's main gunnies, Ring Shelton: while Henriksen is by no means bad here, he's not a comfortable match for Parker's description of Ring.) The movie omits one instance of Virgil Cole's horrific propensity for violence that casts a long shadow over his character in the novel; I prefer the novel's portrait of Virgil, but the movie is a worthwhile way to spend two hours. (One way in which the movie trumps the book: the song that plays over the end credits, sung by Ed Harris in a style reminiscent of a tanked-to-the-eyeballs Unknown Hinson, "You'll Never Leave My Heart," which essentially sums up the events of the movie, in a salty cowboy fashion; Harris co-wrote this number with his composer, Jeff Beal.)

*Cross-posted to LibraryThing.


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